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Radiological Defense

Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization
Norwood Studios, Inc.

1961 was a defining year for United States civil defense policy.  In January, the newly elected Kennedy Administration introduced Frank Burton Ellis as head of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.  Ellis, a brash state senator from Louisiana, immediately declared the nation's preparedness efforts "paltry" and "inadequate" and made it his personal (and highly publicized) mission to raise awareness of the need for a fallout shelter in every American home.(1)  In addition to some more extreme suggestions, such as making fallout shelter construction a requirement for a mortgage loan, he also oversaw the production and release of ten motion pictures.  By far the most widely distributed film from this group was Radiological Defense, which offers a comprehensive look at the threat of fallout radiation resulting from an enemy atomic attack and the protective measures the government and private individuals can take against it. 


Opening in a radiological defense operations center, the film begins by explaining the basic facts of fallout radiation.  Although damage caused by the blast and fire of enemy nuclear weapons would likely be limited to major cities, industrial centers and military installations, radioactive fallout emanating from such strikes could disburse over a wide area and contaminate two million square miles.  Farmland, pastures, water supplies, and over one hundred million people would be put at risk of radiation poisoning.  This threat is depicted on screen when peaceful scenes of men and women going about their lives are suddenly tinted a very dark red, indicating the burning presence of radiation.  Because Radiological Defense was released prior to the creation of a federally sponsored system of public fallout shelters, the film maintains the best protection strategy from this threat is for every American family to create a private shelter in their home and stock it with enough supplies to last two weeks.  Furthermore, local governments are urged to develop plans for training radiological monitors.  Firemen, law enforcement, city council members, and agricultural workers are all shown practicing with survey meters.  For large cities, aerial monitoring may be advantageous, where specialized equipment can take fallout readings over large areas.  Interestingly, the CD V-755 High School Kit, designed to instruct teenaged students on how to operate basic radiological equipment, is also featured.


Shortly after the production of this film, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization ceased to exist.  On July 20, 1961 it was renamed the Office of Emergency Planning with Frank Burton Ellis as director.  In the months immediately preceding this change, Ellis had fallen out of favor with his superiors by demanding of Congress three times the allotted budget for his agency.  After announcing his intention to seek an audience with the Pope to convince the Pontiff to require a fallout shelter in every Catholic church, Ellis was quietly shuffled out of his position and appointed a federal judge in Louisiana.(2)  Following Ellis' departure, President Kennedy announced the creation of the Office of Civil Defense, a sub-agency of the Department of Defense, which would take over the United States' emergency preparations and implement his ambitious National Fallout Shelter Program.  In spite of all this political and bureaucratic turmoil, Radiological Defense proved both popular and resilient.  Annual reports from the O.C.D.M. explain that 230 television stations, with a combined viewership of nine million people, requested copies of the film for airing.(3)  Unlike many of its contemporary civil defense films, Radiological Defense was not declared obsolete in the coming years and could still be rented or purchased from government film catalogs well into the 1970's. (4)

Radiological Defense may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.

1. Bernofsky, Carl.  Frank Burton Ellis, The Bureaucrat.  Tulane University.  2009.  Par. 4. 

3. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.  1961 Annual Report.  U.S. Government Printing Office.  1962.  12.
4. Department of the Army.  Index of Army Motion Pictures and Related Audio-Visual Aids.  U.S. Government Printing Office.  1972.  347.